by PuckStopsHere on 02/10/09 at 03:25 AM ET
It is important to keep in mind how much better the West Conference is than the East Conference. Tyler Dellow has a post that shows how this has been true over the last several years. He shows the winning percentage of the west in games against the east since 1999/2000 and shows that the West Conference has a significant winning record every year except 2003/04. This season, the west has a .559 record (treating games that are tied after 60 minutes as ties). That is the highest winning percentage for the west since 1999/2000. Western dominance is not going away. If anything it is getting bigger.
Given the level of player movement in the NHL, such a trend is surprising. With free agency, one would expect things to even out. If one conference was better at one time, it would quickly be evened out as free agents move throughout the league. This is not what has been observed. The west is better than the east and has been almost consistently for a decade.
I think the reason is travel. West teams have to travel significantly more than east ones do. That shows up in the standings. West teams that are as good as east teams will have worse records. This will force moves to be made to strengthen the western teams. The eastern team can be more complacent because they have a stronger record than they should have and will be less likely to improve. If you transplanted the New York Rangers or the Philadelphia Flyers to the west, they probably would not be good enough for playoffs, but in the east they should make them handily. Thus the western equivalent of such a team is pushed to improve while the eastern version can be complacent as they feel they are already “good enough”.
This difference between conferences is something that needs to be considered when looking at the standings. The Boston Bruins may have the best record in the league with 85 points, but how would they do in the west? I don’t think they are the best team in the NHL. I think they would be near the top, but below San Jose and Detroit in the standings.
On the other end of the standings, the five worst teams in the league are all eastern teams. The New York Islanders, Atlanta Thrashers, Ottawa Senators, Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs have the five worst records in hockey. Just how bad are those teams? They are even worse than their record suggests. In the west, they would have even worse records. It is a rather sobering thought when one considers just how far from Stanley Cup contention any of those teams are.
One person who attempts to take this into account is David Johnson with his power rankings. He considers the strength of schedule when ranking teams. Every east team has a schedule strength below .500 and every west team has one above. Boston may have the best record in the league, but they are third in his power rankings. Of the 16 top teams (nominally the playoff teams), 10 are western teams and six are eastern. If the season ended now, Buffalo and Carolina would make the playoffs. Johnson ranks them 22nd and 20th respectively. However, Edmonton and Columbus would miss the playoffs. Johnson ranks them at eighth and 14th. This would leave Edmonton and Columbus trying to improve and leave Buffalo and Carolina thinking they are “good enough”. Those feelings would be opposite reality. The better teams are the ones trying harder to improve. That feeds this situation where the West Conference is better than the East. The West teams think they are worse than they are and the East teams think they are better than they are and they react accordingly in off-season moves.
It is amazing how much better the West Conference has been than the East and how long that dominance has lasted. With the level of player movement in the league, a trend like that lasting for a decade is surprising. It is a fact that must be taken into account when handicapping NHL games. More than likely, a western team will win the Stanley Cup. More than likely, a player heading east to west in the off-season will see his numbers drop and player heading west to east will see them rise. It is a major inequity in the NHL and one that most people fail to recognize.
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